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Environmental Factor, February 2013

NIEHS biologist honored for award-winning photography

By Ian Thomas

John Petranka

NIEHS biologist and award-winning nature photographer John Petranka (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Wildlife Cover

By encouraging public participation in nature photography, Wildlife in North Carolina magazine seeks to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the state’s indigenous wildlife and natural places. The cover features a close up of a striped horsefly by grand winner Mickey Moten. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine)

John Petranka has spent his career studying the environment through the lens of a microscope, most notably as a biologist with the NIEHS Calcium Regulation Group. In his spare time, however, Petranka still enjoys viewing the world around him — albeit through a lens of a slightly different kind.

A thriving amateur photographer, Petranka is being honored by Wildlife in North Carolina magazine as one of this year’s winners in the publication’s eighth annual wildlife photography competition, (http://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Learning/documents/WINC/Sample_13/Sample_2012_Photo_Competition_Winners.pdf)  with first prizes in the categories of invertebrates and wild plants, as well as a bird photo featured on the inside back cover.

“I’m absolutely delighted about this award, though admittedly a bit humbled,” said Petranka, a longtime resident of Chapel Hill who took up the hobby just four years ago. “This contest attracts some extraordinary work from some really talented people, many of whom are a lot more experienced at this than I am.”

A natural eye for the craft

A native of Alabama and a graduate of Auburn University’s zoology program, Petranka moved to the Triangle in 1984, where he says the opportunities for picture taking are as rich as the landscape itself.

“The zoning restrictions in our area of Orange County have done a nice job preserving the rural habitat for native plants and animals — a real treat for photographers,” said Petranka, an avid fan of the region’s s pring wildflower season.

Fellow photographer and colleague Steve McCaw added, “John’s macro-photography work is some of the best I’ve ever seen, and as anyone who’s ever attempted that kind of shoot will tell you, it’s an incredibly challenging technique to master.”

The beauty of science

Currently engaged in a study of calcium signaling in cells, Petranka manages the lab in which he works, as well as his group’s transgenic mouse colony. Still, whether he’s conducting fluorescence-based studies with his labmates or shooting moss in his back yard, Petranka freely admits that both serve a key purpose.

“For me, science and photography each represent a unique way to learn about the living world around us,” said Petranka. “In the lab, I get to study the remarkable intricacies of things like cellular function to help improve human health, whereas, with photography, I still examine many of those same beautiful complexities, but from a more aesthetically pleasing point of view.”

The January/February issue of Wildlife in North Carolina, featuring the 2012 winners of the wildlife photo competition, is available online via the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission website, (http://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/MultimediaCenter/WildlifeinNorthCarolina.aspx)  or on newsstands around the North Carolina Triangle region.

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)


dewy grass

Petranka notes that both of his award-winning photos, including dewy grass, above, were taken within a half-mile of his home in Orange County.(Photo courtesy of John Petranka)


praying mantis

Petranka’s praying mantis was taken at the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Johnston Mill Nature Preserve.(Photo courtesy of John Petranka)


Photo of birds at rest

Petranka’s bird at rest graced the inside back cover of the issue.(Photo courtesy of John Petranka)




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